Last updated on January 30th, 2021 at 01:31 pm EST
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How to spend a day in Costa Rica’s Central Valley
If you’re like most Costa Rica travelers who fly into and out of the Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO), you may have some time to spare around the cities of San Jose (Costa Rica’s capital) or Alajuela (home to the SJO airport) at the start or the end of your trip. As we touch on in our related blog posts Things To Do In And Around San Jose Costa Rica and 5 Things To Do In And Around Alajuela Costa Rica, there’s plenty to keep you busy in the Central Valley region, but if you’re looking for an inexpensive, low-key way to spend a day, why not escape the big cities and explore a quaint Costa Rican town on the outskirts that’s bursting with character, culture, and charm? Better yet, why not visit three of these appealing locales?
An easy Costa Rica road trip: Grecia, Sarchi, and Zarcero
A pleasant and scenic 1-day road trip that’s worth making around the Central Valley includes visits to the small towns of Grecia, Sarchi, and Zarcero. These three towns sit northwest of Alajuela, so this road trip is ideal if you’re stationed in (or plan to travel west of) San Jose or the Alajuela/SJO airport area.
Using the SJO airport as a model start and end point, you can drive from the airport to Grecia, from Grecia to Sarchi, and from Sarchi to Zarcero in roughly 90 minutes non-stop (3 hours round-trip). Throw in extra time to experience the highlights at each town (continue reading below for details) and this quick and easy road trip makes for a event-filled yet laid back travel day. This road trip is also best experienced in a rental car.
Planning your road trip itinerary
Of the three towns you’ll visit during this road trip, Grecia sits closest to San Jose, Alajuela, and the SJO Airport. If you plan to make a day trip to/from San Jose, Alajuela, and/or the SJO airport, it’s best to visit Grecia first, followed by Sarchi then Zarcero.
Zarcero sits the furthest from San Jose, Alajuela, and the SJO airport. It also falls along Road 141, one of a few roads that lead to the La Fortuna / Arenal region of Costa Rica. If you plan to explore Grecia, Sarchi, and Zarcero before continuing on to northern inland destinations like La Fortuna / Arenal, it’s best to visit Grecia first, followed by Sarchi then Zarcero.
Alternatively, if you plan to start your road trip from a northern inland destination (like La Fortuna / Arenal) and end your road trip at a destination in the Central Valley (like San Jose, Alajuela, or the SJO airport), it’s best to visit Zarcero first, followed by Sarchi then Grecia.
No matter the order in which you visit the towns, you’ll travel the same roads during the journey: Road 118 (to Grecia and Sarchi) and Road 141 (to Zarcero). If you set off on your road trip from San Jose, Alajuela, the SJO airport, or La Fortuna / Arenal, you may also travel over Highway 1, Highway 3, and/or Road 142. All of these roads are paved, don’t require a 4×4 vehicle, pass through small towns, showcase rural communities, and are relatively easy to drive. Note that the section of Road 141 that falls between the towns of Naranjo and Ciudad Quesada (this includes Zarcero) climbs, curves around, and descends hillsides set among cloud forest. This part of Road 141 can be foggy at times, so it’s best to avoid completing the Zarcero portion of the road trip in the late afternoon or after dark.
Things to do in Grecia, Sarchi, and Zarcero
Though you could spend an entire day roaming around Grecia, Sarchi, or Zarcero if you wish to people-watch and get a feel for the local way of life, most visitors explore all three towns over the course of one day. If you want to hit the highlights at each of these picturesque towns in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, and especially if you’re traveling on a tight budget, here are our top 5 things to do in Grecia, Sarchi, and Zarcero. Excluding tips and/or souvenir purchases, the activities we recommend below are 100% free!
Visit Grecia’s metallic church
A pretty, public park marks the heart of the pleasant town of Grecia, or, as we know it, the best place to buy a car in Costa Rica (most locals agree). Unmissable on the east side of the park is the long, red Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Las Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercedes Church) which makes a stunning photo subject. This church is unique in that it was built from metal sheets. Don’t believe us? Give the wall a gentle knock and listen for its tinny clank. Inside, cream walls with gold trim; stained-glass windows that let in beams of light; opulent and translucent chandeliers; and pastel-colored tile floors warm the place of worship and soften the church’s stiff exterior.
You’ll find the entrance to this church, which has been dubbed to no end as the “gingerbread church” given it’s decorative white trim that resembles icing, on the west side of the well-landscaped building. It faces the park, a pedestrian pathway, a peaceful fountain, a concrete bench, and the town’s colorful “Grecia” sign. There’s street parking along the north side of the church.
Map of Grecia and the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Las Mercedes
Shop for souvenirs and meet artists in Sarchi, the artisan capital of Costa Rica
One of my favorite things to do in Costa Rica, regardless of where I travel, is meet local artists and purchase their work. Ricky and I cherish the handcrafted Costa Rican souvenirs we’ve collected to date, including the seed carving we purchased from a member of the Maleku indigenous group, masks we purchased from members of the Boruca indigenous group, paintings we purchased from members of the Cabecar indigenous group as well as non-indigenous Costa Ricans, and countless other precious pieces. I get giddy with glee whenever we visit Sarchi, Costa Rica’s artisan capital of Costa Rica, because we get to add something new to our collection and chat with the artist who created it. Not only is Sarchi a great place to visit if you want to pick up some authentic Costa Rican souvenirs, it’s also a great place to meet talented Costa Rican artists.
Take Edgar (pictured above), for example. Not only has Edgar spent more than two decades painting geometric shapes and patterns onto the wheels of Costa Rica’s beloved national icon–the oxcart–he’s also one of the happiest people you’ll ever meet because he loves his job unconditionally and with a passion as bold as his technicolor paints. Edgar is one of a few Costa Rican artists you can meet in Sarchi by stopping by the oxcart factory known as Taller Eloy Alfaro e Hijos. Here, not only can you buy Costa Rican souvenirs direct from the artist but you can see art come to life by watching the artists work. Though the experience is free (apart from any souvenirs you wish to purchase at Taller Eloy Alfaro e Hijos‘ on-site souvenir store), it’s respectful to leave a tip for the artists in the tip jar, especially if you spend time talking to or taking photos with any one artist in particular.
Map of Sarchi and Taller Eloy Alfaro e Hijos
Learn how oxcarts are made
In addition to employing artists, Taller Eloy Alfaro e Hijos also employs skilled craftsmen who build functional oxcarts and decorative oxcart wheels. If you’re one of many Costa Rica visitors who are quick to write-off learning how oxcarts are made (because, honestly, who is born with a need to know this?) you’re making a big mistake, especially if craftsmanship, woodworking, art, design, architecture, engineering or history interest you.
Know this: Learning how oxcarts are made in Sarchi isn’t really about oxcarts, it’s about witnessing ingenuity, hard work, and tradition in motion. That’s because Taller Eloy Alfaro e Hijos is a century-old, family-run workshop that demonstrates a novel way to build oxcart wheels by hand using 16 pie-shaped wood pieces. Around the rickety building you’ll see people hard at work, measuring, cutting, sanding, binding, and shellacking oxcart parts at various stations, all powered by a large waterwheel that chugs away endlessly at the back of the workshop. Though visits to Taller Eloy Alfaro e Hijos feel a bit like you’ve stepped back in time when you watch hydroelectricity run the place, amazingly, the time-honored process is what keeps the beloved local (and national) landmark a bustling, operational shop.
You can visit Taller Eloy Alfaro e Hijos for free, however, it’s best to purchase a souvenir from the on-site store to support the workshop. If you’re lucky, and you’re welcomed into the workshop by an employee to try your hand at building or shellacking an oxcart wheel, you can show your appreciation by offering a tip. It’s important to note that workshop employees are not tour guides who get paid to show you around, they’re craftsmen who take pride in their work and want to help you understand it. Tipping is a nice way to thank them for their time.
Map of Sarchi and Taller Eloy Alfaro e Hijos
Visit the world’s biggest oxcart
If you’ve read our previous two activity recommendations, you might be thinking “enough with the oxcarts already!” and you may be right. But you simply cannot leave Sarchi without briefly laying eyes on what several people maintain is the world’s largest oxcart. Built by Sarchi residents, the large-scale oxcart awaits your visit in the town’s central park, which sits a mere three blocks south of Taller Eloy Alfaro e Hijos. You can’t miss the striking orange structure–it’s covered with traditional markings (triangles, flowers, and scrolls to name a few) painted in the colors you’re most likely to see on an oxcart in Costa Rica: yellow, orange, green, blue, and pink.
Additional sites of interest around the park include a monument that honors Sarchi’s local artisans (look for the statue of man and his painted scroll by the large oxcart in the park) and the mint-green Parroquia Santiago Apóstol (Saint James the Apostle Parish), which sits on the park’s northeast side.
Map of Sarchi’s central park that houses the giant oxcart
Wander through topiary art in Zarcero
A treat to see firsthand is the amusing topiary art that livens the central park in the center of Zarcero (also referred to as Alfaro Ruiz). Maintained by a local resident, you’ll find all kinds of things carved into the park’s shrubs from animals, birds, dinosaurs, and human figures to abstract designs and a replica of the Parroquia San Rafael Arcángel (Saint Rafael Arcángel Parish), the church that towers over the park’s east side. It’s fun to walk through the row of carved arches that runs from Zarcero’s main street (Road 141) to the steps that lead to the church’s front entrance. It’s also nice to take a stroll around and admire the park’s other landscaping, which includes gardens of ornamental grasses and blue-hued hydrangeas.
Map of Zarcero’s central park that displays topiary art
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you been to Grecia, Sarchi, and/or Zarcero? What did you do while spending time at each?